Bill Sapsis has written a book! Actually, he has been writing it for years. Heads & Tales: Uncle Bill's Musings on the Theatrical Experience is a selection of articles from the many that were published in Sapsis Rigging's newsletter HEADS! starting in 1993. They have been updated and reworked to create the nine chapters of a book that is rambling — but hardly pointless — funny, and enlightening.
The cover of Heads & Tales shows Bill Sapsis in a ruff collar and hard-hat, contemplating a skull held in his left hand. “Alas, poor Yorick!” the Shakespearean allusion is a joke, but it strikes me as a good description of the book. This is not to say that Bill Sapsis is Bill Shakespeare, but Shakespeare's plays offer something for everyone: farce for the groundlings, philosophy for the educated, and stories for everybody. Sapsis' book is like that: basic rigging for beginners, tips on working safely aimed at different levels in the job hierarchy, and stories for all of us.
Chapter 2, “Tools Of The Trade,” covers a selection of some of the basic tools used in rigging: rope (natural and synthetic fiber, wire rope), swaged wire rope fittings and cable clips, turnbuckles, shackles, and curtain track. This is not an exhaustive list of basic tools, and the selection is idiosyncratic (Why curtain tracks but not olios? Why not both?). But the novice reader can learn something about basic rigging tools, the more experienced rigger can enjoy how Sapsis explains these things, and all can benefit from Sapsis' comments about how these tools are used or misused in the industry. For example, Sapsis observes that he sees a lot of swaging tools being used but not a lot of go/no-go gauges, which he sees as a serious problem. Indeed, I can remember one of my coworkers, years ago, carefully making test crimps, checking them with a go/no-go gauge, and then adjusting the crimping tool until the crimps were just right. But did I ever see that gauge again? I don't think so. Thus, we knew that the tool could make good crimps, but we did not know if the crimps we were making were any good. We flew the scenery, and it did not fall down, but proof-testing with people under the load is stupid, if not homicidal. Why did we do that?
Why did we do that? Why do we all do stupid, dangerous things sometimes? Sapsis, in the first chapter, “Be safe,” discusses what he sees as the three main causes of accidents: poor communication, lack of time, and bravado. This chapter has a few war stories; most have lucky endings, but one ends with a worker dead on the floor. The chapter is an impassioned plea for us to communicate with each other clearly, to work smarter (e.g., do not assume loads or carrying capacities), and to respect our physical limits. The show does not have to go on when going on is likely to be over someone's broken or dead body. There is advice here aimed at all levels of the production hierarchy: for the worker on the bottom, there is learning how to say “no” to the boss that wants him to work 14 hours without a break. For the supervisor or chief supervisor a little higher up, there is making sure that there is a deck chief for the load-in and a supervisor for each area — and only one of each, rather than a lot of people yelling advice to each other.
For the people at the top, it is not loading a show into a venue without knowing in advance that the roof will support the load and making sure that the technical specifications are accurate. For everybody, it is more training, and if training is not readily available, working to make it available.
Sapsis covers a lot of rigging-related topics in Heads & Tales, including the care and use of manual counterweight systems, motorized wire rope winches, fall protection, do's and don'ts of using personnel lifts, how not to fly people, the operation of fire safety curtains, setting up temporary outdoor stages with the help of “mafia blocks,” and more. However, he also covers a lot of other topics that really are simply about being a responsible adult and working in the industry in the United States: acknowledging the contributions of your elders, giving to help those less fortunate, and voting. As noted before, the book is rambling but not pointless. There are things to learn and to think about here.
Heads & Tales: Uncle Bill's Musings on the Theatrical Experience is a slim book, only 107 pages, and it is a quick read. Sapsis writes in an easy to understand conversational style, and the chapters are broken into short sections that are easy to get through even if one only has a few free minutes. That said, I think this is a book a person can enjoy for a long time. Having read it, I find I still pick it up and re-read sections, getting my mind going again. “Why do people do that? Why did we do that? What will I do next time?”
Heads & Tales: Uncle Bill's Musings on the Theatrical Experience
By Bill Sapsis
Lansdowne, PA: Sapsis publications, 2007
107 pages. ISBN 978-0-9797039-0-4
This article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Protocol, the journal of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association.